Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA)

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Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA)


LEADER: Arnaldo Otegi



USUAL AREA OF OPERATION: Spain; southwest France

U.S. TERRORIST EXCLUSION LIST DESIGNEE: The U.S. Department of State declared ETA to be a terrorist organization in October 1997


Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA, Basque Fatherland and Liberty) is a Basque separatist organization, which has waged a long-running campaign of violence to gain the secession of the Basque parts of Spain and France, and to create an independent Basque state.


ETA was founded in the 1950s as a student discussion group, which evolved by the late 1950s into a direct-action resistance organization. However, its socialist and, above all, Basque nationalist roots lie at least two decades further back.

Spain, in the 1950s was still under the control of its fascist dictator General Francisco Franco, who, for a variety of reasons, had survived the fate of his former stalemates—Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini—to continue leading Spain in the post-war era (and would continue doing so until 1975). Franco had risen to power in the late 1930s after crushing the democratically elected socialist government of the Spanish Second Republic in the Spanish Civil War. Spain's Second Republic had extolled a benevolent kind of socialism (e.g., small-scale land redistribution and wide-scale literacy programs as opposed to the often brutal revolutionary Marxist-Leninism undertaken in the USSR at that time) and afforded large degrees of autonomy to the linguistically and ethnically unique areas of Catalonia and the Basque Country.

Franco characterized his fight for Spain both during and after the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) by brutally cracking down on socialists and those who sought self-determination. His most notorious assault on Basques was, in many ways, the defining moment of the Spanish Civil War when he ordered the bombing of the town of Guernica, which was destroyed in four hours of air raids. Not only was this the first large-scale civilian bombing in history (later immortalized in Pablo Picasso's painting of the same name), but Guernica was a deeply symbolic place for the Basques. Franco had intended the bombing to crush the Basque national spirit. However, in many Basque minds, Guernica represented an historic breaking point with the rest of Spain represented not just by Franco and government from Madrid, but linguistically and nationalistically. This would hold deep significance in later years.

ETA emerged as a student discussion group at the University of Deusto in the Basque city of Bilbao in 1953. It was an offshoot of the youth group of the PNV (the foremost Basque nationalist party in the Second Republic and leading party in the Basque government in exile in France, but suppressed by Franco) and originally called Ekin (to get busy). The emergence of a student "talking shop" to discuss ideas of Basque nationhood and identity less than two decades after the Spanish Civil War was at once daring, but also a signal of defiance at the suppression of Basque identity in Franco's Spain.

The group reconstituted itself as ETA in 1959, and articulated the view that Basque nationality is defined by language, rather than ethnicity or religion as other Basque nationalists had traditionally tended to do. Its leaders also extolled a brand of socialism, which has remained a part of its identity in the years since. In 1965, this evolved into a Marxist-Leninist position, although this was later modified in the 1980s.

In its early life, ETA, probably by necessity, remained largely in the shadows, confining itself to the hanging of Basque flags—forbidden by Franco—and the destruction of Spanish symbols and other infrastructure. When it turned to more overt violence remains the subject of some debate, and while several died as a result of ETA sabotage attacks in the early 1960s, it seems unlikely that these were intentional. Certainly, the first ETA assassination to attract widespread notoriety came in August 1968, when ETA members killed Meliton Manzanas, a secret police chief in the Basque city of San Sebastian. Manzanas was a notorious figure who oversaw the torture of prisoners during interrogations and had been a Gestapo collaborator in France's Vichy regime. Six ETA members would be sentenced to death for the killing, but quite whether this was a political attack on the Franco regime or merely a reprisal for the killing by Spanish police of Xabi Etxebarrieta, an ETA militant, remains the subject of some conjecture.

Five years later, however, ETA, secured worldwide fame by assassinating Franco's anointed successor, the Spanish Prime Minister, Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, in Madrid. The daring attack—a ton of explosives had been buried under a Madrid side street and detonated as Blanco's car drove over it, catapulting the vehicle over a church and against the roof of a five-story apartment building before it crashed onto the street below—had followed a crackdown on Basque separatists and coincided with the start of a trial of ten leading Franco opponents.

Far from securing universal notoriety, however, ETA's attack was even praised by some Spanish liberals, and for breaking the Francoist plan for succession. When Franco died in November 1975, rather than one of his political allies succeeding him as head of state, this role returned to the monarchy, to King Juan Carlos. He then transferred control of Spain back to a democratically elected Parliament after elections in June 1977.

During this period of transition towards democracy, Spain in general and ETA in particular experienced profound changes. After Franco's death followed an amnesty of former political prisoners, including many from ETA's ranks, some of whom had been engaged in violence. At this point, ETA split into two discernable groups: the majority into ETA political-military, ETA(pm), and a minority into ETA military, ETA(m). The former abandoned violence, accepted Spain's new constitutional democracy, with limited self-government for the Basque country (and Catalonia), and integrated into the political party Euskadiko Ezkerra.

ETA(m), which would soon become known simply as ETA, adopted a more radical approach and refused to recognize Spain's new constitutional democracy. Like the IRA, to which it is often compared, nothing less than full independence was deemed acceptable. Spain's first years of democracy marked ETA's most violent period, in which they claimed more than two hundred lives. Some of these attacks were made on former ETA members who had turned to democracy in post-Francoist Spain, most notoriously the murder of Maria Dolores Katarain, a former director of ETA whom they accused of "desertion" after she abandoned their armed struggle.

By the mid 1980s, ETA had adopted many of the tactics favored by violent paramilitary groups, including car bombings or attacks targeted at shopping areas. Usually they would be preceded by a warning—the intention being to disrupt rather than to maim—but often this would be misplaced or given too late. A series of atrocities, such as an attack on a Barcelona shopping center that killed twenty-one and injured forty-five in June 1987, provoked outage and heightened the Spanish government's resolve against ETA.

Between 1983 and 1987, officials within Spain's center-left PSOE government sponsored a so-called "dirty war" against Basque extremists. Carried out by Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación (GAL, Antiterrorists Groups of Freedom), they operated largely from the French side of the border, targeting ETA leaders and militants and murdering twenty-three people, around a third of whom had no terrorist connections.

According to Paddy Woodworth in Dirty Wars, Clean Hands: ETA, the GAL and Spanish Democracy, a GAL operation, in October 1983 bore the imprint of later missions. GAL kidnapped two young ETA members, Joxean Lasa and Joxe Zabala, in Bayonne, took them to an abandoned palace belonging to a PSOE leader, Julen Elgorriaga, in San Sebastian, where they were tortured by members of the Civil Guard for several weeks. They were then stuffed into the boot of a car, and driven 800 kilometers to Alicante, taken to a lonely desert spot, and shot in the back of the head and buried in quicklime.

The scandal created by GAL's activities (the Spanish Interior Minister Jose Barrionuevo was jailed in 1998 for sanctioning the "dirty war" and the Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, was implicated, too) effectively saved ETA by the outrage caused among Spain's Basque population. This did not necessarily manifest itself in violent ways—Gesto por la Paz (Association for Peace in the Basque Country), which was founded in 1986, organized silent demonstrations following either ETA or GAL killings—but it cast attention on the issue of Basque separatism and prompted political talks between Basque political parties and the Spanish government in early 1988. ETA called a ceasefire, but when negotiations broke down, it soon returned to violence.

In 1992, ETA's three top leaders, Francisco Mujika Germendia, Jose Luis Alvarez Santacristnia, and Jose Maria Arregi Erostarbe—respectively, its military, political, and logistical leaders—were arrested in the French Basque town of Bidart. This briefly weakened ETA and saw a switch in tactics to a so-called street struggle. Essentially, it was an organized campaign of vandalism often carried out by minors. When further peace talks broke down in 1995, however, ETA soon returned to more overt violence, which included a failed car bombing directed at Jose Maria Aznar, the leader of Partido Popular (PP, Popular Party), Spain's largest conservative political party, and an abortive assassination attempt on King Juan Carlos.

Further outrage came in September 1997 when ETA kidnapped Miguel Angel Blanco, a low-ranking PP activist, and threatened to kill him unless the Spanish government's policy of dispersing ETA prisoners in jails across Spain ended. Six million people demonstrated to demand Blanco's release, but when the Spanish government refused to switch its policy, Blanco was shot in the head and dumped near the town of Pamplona. His execution prompted further furious protests against ETA.

Increasingly, the extremism of ETA meant it was becoming marginalized within its own heartlands. While most Spanish Basques favored greater autonomy, be it in a federal Spain or as an independent nation state, few backed the violent means ETA saw as a necessity. There was also a decline in patience at its unyielding obstinance in political talks, which it usually ducked out of when things were not going in its favor.

In March 2003, the Spanish government finally lost patience with ETA and banned Batasuna, ETA's political wing, and increased the security operation on its former members and those of ETA. This prompted yet another upsurge in violence.

On March 1, 2004, leading up to Spain's general elections, ETA left a massive truck bomb near Madrid, with the potential to cause a massacre had it not been for the intervention of police. Ten days later, on March 11, a series of bombs left on commuter trains in Madrid killed 192 people. The attacks were widely blamed on ETA at first, but it quickly turned out to be the work of al-Qaeda.

Spain was left shocked by the Madrid bombings, and it seemingly marked the end of any sort of toleration—no matter how thin it may have been—for extremism. Perhaps taking its lead from the national mood, ETA went quiet for the following six months, although it resumed its bombing campaign, albeit on a smaller scale, toward the end of 2004.

At the same time, however, there have been moves toward reaching a sort of political settlement. Arnaldo Otegi, Batasuna's leader, pledged in November 2004 that he would "take the conflict off the streets and bring it to the negotiating table." That same month, a letter from six jailed Basque terrorists—including its former leader, Mugica Garmendia—urged ETA to abandon its campaign of violence and to back "institutional and mass struggle" for an independent Basque homeland.

In May 2005, the Spanish government stated its willingness to enter new talks with Basque separatists on the proviso of an ETA ceasefire, and according to El Mundo newspaper, secret talks were staged between ETA and the Spanish government throughout the summer of 2005.



Born in 1958, Arnaldo Otegi was leader of the now-outlawed political wing of ETA, Batasuna, and is currently a member of the Basque regional parliament. It was largely for his refusal to denounce violence carried out by ETA that led the then-Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar to outlaw Batasuna in 2003, although Otegi acts as de facto head, and when he makes his frequent appearances in the Spanish media, it is assumed that he speaks for Batasuna and, in turn, ETA.

Moves towards a negotiated settlement with ETA have stalled in part because of the Spanish government's continued attempts to silence Otegi. As well as banning his political party in 2003, he was jailed for fifteen months for "extolling terrorism" in 2004 (later reversed on appeal), and he was arrested in May 2005 for membership in ETA.

Nevertheless, his pledge in November 2004 to "take the conflict off the streets and bring it to the negotiating table," although initially viewed with skepticism, seems to have been taken seriously, and paved the way for secret peace negotiations during the summer of 2005.


Founded out of the remnants of a student discussion group.
Assassination of secret police chief, Meliton Manzanas.
ETA murders Spanish Prime Minister and Franco's anointed successor as head of state, Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco.
Split between ETA(pm), which backs constitutional democracy, and ETA(m) which favors violent methods.
Government-backed GAL declares "dirty war" on ETA.
Kidnapping and murder of political activist, Miguel Angel Blanco, prompts massive demonstrations against ETA.
Madrid train bombings by al-Qaeda just a week after an ETA bomb plot was uncovered prompt huge mood shift among Spanish population.
Secret talks between ETA and Spanish government prompt hopes of a political settlement.


ETA is a Basque nationalist organization committed to the creation of an independent state for its people. It has declared its belief that the Basque people hold sovereignty over the entire Basque region, which encompasses northeastern Spain and parts of southwestern France. It extols violence as a way of pressuring the Spanish government and people into giving in to its aims.

It has also always extolled a socialist ideology. For a time, this was Marxist-Leninist, but it moderated these views in the 1980s. Nevertheless, the remnants of Batasuna retain many leftist views, and ETA is identified with the Basque National Liberation Movement, a left-wing coalition of political parties, trade unions, and youth groups.

Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) a.k.a. Euzkadi Ta Askatasuna, Batasuna


ETA was founded in 1959 with the aim of establishing an independent homeland based on Marxist principles and encompassing the Spanish Basque provinces of Vizcaya, Guipuzcoa, and Alava, as well as the autonomous region of Navarra and the southwestern French Departments of Labourd, Basse-Navarra, and Soule. Spanish and French counterterrorism initiatives since 2000 have hampered the group's operational capabilities. Spanish police arrested scores of ETA members and accomplices in Spain in 2004, and dozens were apprehended in France, including two key group leaders. These arrests included the capture in October of two key ETA leaders in southwestern France. ETA's political wing, Batasuna, remains banned in Spain. Spanish and French prisons are estimated to hold over 700 ETA members.


Primarily involved in bombings and assassinations of Spanish Government officials, security and military forces, politicians, and judicial figures, but has also targeted journalists and tourist areas. Security service scrutiny and a public outcry after the Islamic extremist train bombing on March 11, 2004, in Madrid limited ETA's capabilities and willingness to inflict casualties. ETA conducted no fatal attacks in 2004, but did mount several low-level bombings in Spanish tourist areas during the summer and 11 bombings in early December, each preceded by a warning call. The group has killed more than 850 persons and injured hundreds of others since it began lethal attacks in the 1960s. ETA finances its activities primarily through extortion and robbery.


Unknown; hundreds of members plus supporters.


Operates primarily in the Basque autonomous regions of northern Spain and southwestern France, but also has attacked Spanish and French interests elsewhere.


Has received training at various times in the past in Libya, Lebanon, and Nicaragua. Some ETA members allegedly fled to Cuba and Mexico while others reside in South America. ETA members have operated and been arrested in other European countries, including Belgium, The Netherlands, and Germany.

Source: U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Terrorism. Washington, D.C., 2004.

ETA's view of Basque nationalism is defined by language rather than ethnicity or religion. This partly explains why it has been more successful on the Spanish side of the border, where Euskara is more widely spoken, than in the French part of Basque country. While French Basques will commonly define their identity by flying Basque flags, sometimes speaking Euskara, or attending bullfights and Basque-style fiestas, they do so in synch with their French nationality. By contrast, Basques on the Spanish side of the border go in for the same cultural trappings, but will commonly define themselves as exclusively Basque. Tellingly, support for an independent Basque nation is barely in issue in France, while polls show around a third of Spanish Basques support the idea, and a further third back greater autonomy.

ETA's tactics have included assassinations, bombings, and kidnappings. It has also involved itself in attacks on drug dealers—a politically popular move on a local level. Its funding has traditionally come from bank robberies, but it has also been accused of kidnapping and extortion.


Writing in the New Statesman, the Madrid-based journalist John Carlin wrote that he believed extreme Basque and Catalan nationalism would die out within a generation. "Franco … exercised such a strong centralist grip—he banned the Basque and Catalan languages—that, when the lid came off, nationalist fervour inevitably bubbled over." By contrast, "The people who will be ruling Spain in ten or 20 years, who were born around the time of Franco's death, have not grown up in a climate of political oppression. Neither have they the inferiority complex of their parents vis-a-vis the British, Germans or French. Basques learn in Basque at school; Catalans in Catalan. They have their own newspapers, TV stations, historical street names. However, young Catalans increasingly use Castilian Spanish in everyday conversation. And young Basques, bludgeoned into learning an abstruse tongue by their political elders, will probably follow. In general, young people are more relaxed about their regional identities, more confident about their status in Europe, less slaves to political passion."

ETA 'Ends Attacks' on Politicians

The Basque militant group ETA has said it will no longer attack Spanish politicians, in a statement reported by the Basque newspaper, Gara.

The group said it has closed its "front" against politicians because of changes in the political climate.

Madrid has offered to negotiate with ETA if it lays down its weapons.

The militants, who are blamed for some 800 deaths in their 40-year fight for an independent Basque nation, say they are ready to talk but not to disarm.

A statement issued by the group on Friday stressed that the right to self-determination would have to be central to any peace process.


ETA's latest statement, issued on Saturday, said it was waiting for the Spanish and French authorities to "respond positively to the will" it had displayed.

The militants' planned Basque homeland encompasses areas of northern Spain and south-western France.

Over the past two years, it has carried out several small attacks without causing any deaths.

Some 250,000 people marched in Madrid earlier in June to protest at Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's offer to negotiate with the militant separatists.

Source: BBC News, 2005

"What do the Basques want now?" asked Luis Núñez Astrain in The Basques: Their Struggle for Independence. "Don't they already have a democratic system comparable with that of any other European country? Don't they enjoy a substantial measure of autonomy? So what is the point of their interminable protests, their huge demonstrations, their armed struggle?" The problem, according to Astrain, is the institutions themselves, as they "are complex and confused, and far from making up an entity peculiar to the Basques, they have exactly the opposite effect, of actually preventing the people from achieving unity. It is not that these political institutions do not work but that they exist in excessive numbers. There are too many of them and their functions are too various. What is lacking, in short, are institutions with a unitary function which would make for cohesion and ensure the sovereignty of a country which stands in great need of them." Until this issue is resolved, in other words, a satisfactory political resolution for the Basques will not exist.


As of 2005, ETA has undergone the longest period in its history without causing death through its violence. Secret negotiations initiated by the Spanish government may bring a political solution to the region, but it is difficult to see where talks can lead to short of full independence. At present, no region in the world enjoys such a high degree of self-government as the Basque Country, and it has its own regional rule, its own police, and even its own tax system. Failing independence, as the Basque people become more integrated within both Spain and the European Union, and continue to lose their appetite for extremism in the post-Madrid bombings era, ETA may become a thing of the past, or, at least reflect the views of an ever-increasing minority.



Núñez Astrain, Luis. The Basques: Their Struggle for Independence. Cardiff: Welsh Academic Press, 1997.

Preston, Paul. A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.

Woodworth, Paddy. Dirty Wars, Clean Hands: ETA, the GAL, and Spanish Democracy. Ireland: Cork University Press, 2001.


Carlin, John. "An Ethical Nation, Full of Bluster: Spaniards Love Europe Because They Hate Each Other. So will the Country Fall Apart?" New Statesman. June 16, 2003.

Web sites

Eushal Herria Journal. "Navarre." 〈〉 (accessed October 11, 2005).


Irish Republican Army